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Are poll leads for both Labour and the Tories encouraging them to neglect their weaknesses?

In the last ComRes pollwatch, it was highlighted that although the British public believe the UK economy to be improving as a whole, individuals themselves are not feeling better off.

One of the most common questions we received in response to this was what it all meant for the political parties and their hopes for the next General Election.

It is interesting for the performance of the economy is to be seen primarily in terms of its impact on the upcoming election, rather than an end in itself. But it is also a sign of the times and goes to show that Westminster is already very much in General Election mode.

Politics and the economy

As is well-known, the Conservatives lead when it comes to who the public trust to keep the economy growing – 40% do so, compared with only 26% who trust Labour.

But when it comes to living standards, Labour leads across a number of different measures – from getting the cost of living down, to protecting people’s jobs and, perhaps most importantly, to making people’s own families better off.

ComRes Poll Watch Graph

This divorce between economic growth and living standards is perhaps to be expected. An astonishing 71% of Britons say that they do not feel they have benefitted from any growth seen in the UK’s economy over the past six months, according to a recent ComRes poll for ITV News.

But it is also having an effect on the parties’ behaviour themselves. As they both lead on one major issue each (Conservatives: economy, Labour: living standards), both parties seem to be playing down their opponents perceived area of strength, rather than attacking it directly.

The Conservatives and the cost of living

George Osborne told the Commons last week that “If you don’t have an economic plan, you simply don’t have a living standards plan.” Tory strategists have also been briefing that Labour have ‘bet all their chips’ on a two-point lead of making people personally better off which will likely be eroded as ‘the economic recovery filters through’. The implication here is that living standards are just a function of overall economic performance, and thus are of secondary importance.

But this seems to somewhat understate the Conservative deficit on making people better off. As can be seen in the graph above, Labour’s lead on this measure is not 2-points, but 7-points. (It has been up to 10 points in our polling, such as in this poll for the Independent).

Even when the battle lines are drawn on the Tories’ preferred terrain – a head-to-head, two-way choice between David Cameron or Ed Miliband for Prime Minister, the Labour leader (30%) is 4 percentage points ahead of his Conservative counterpart (26%) when it comes to who people trust to make their family better off.

Labour and the economy

The Tories are not the only ones playing down the importance of the issues on which they are behind. The anonymous briefer is perhaps onto something when they say that Labour’s focus on the cost of living comes at the expense of attention spent elsewhere.

Of course in the short term Labour will want to hammer away relentlessly at the cost of living nail until it is well and truly buried in the plywood of the coffin’s lid. It has given the party a greater sense of self-confidence and helped move the media narrative in their favour. But to extend the metaphor a little further, one solid fastening can only do so much if the other nails are loose.

Although the focus on living standards has perhaps stopped the slow erosion of Labour’s vote share seen over the course of this year, their poll ratings have not significantly increased since Ed Miliband first announced his energy price freeze at Labour conference in September.

Similarly, much attention is paid by strategists and commentators to left-leaning people who voted for the Liberal Democrats at the last election but have now switched to Labour. But Labour’s uninterrupted lead in the polls started not when the Lib Dems joined the Conservatives in Coalition but when the Conservatives’ completely mismanaged the infamous “Omnishambles” Budget in March 2012. In other words, it was an event surrounding the management of the whole economy which set the political temperature of the past two years.

War games

While both the Conservatives and Labour battle it out to define the terms of the next election, we can expect both parties to continue trumpeting the issues where they are ahead, and dismiss the ones where they are not. But with 18 months still to go until the General Election, it will be interesting to see if they continue to shoot at each other from distance, or if someone makes the decisive signal for their tanks to roll onto their opponent's lawn. Whether this is the Tories making a move on the cost of living or Labour fighting for a dominance on economic competence remains to be seen.

Whoever moves first might leave themselves exposed, but it may become necessary if either party is to take a decisive advantage before 2015.

Methodology: ComRes interviewed 2,001 GB adults online 16-18 October 2013. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults. Data were also weighted by past vote recall. The sample was randomly split and asked amended questions (one set, n=1,010, was asked about parties, the other, n=991, about leaders). Each split was then weighted by past vote recall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables on the ComRes website.

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